The Data Economy: Taking a Data-Driven Approach to Customer Experience

The Data Economy is a video podcast series about leaders who use data to make positive impacts on their business, customers, and the world. To see all current episodes, explore the podcast episodes library below.


You can often tell how serious a company is about new strategic objectives based on the roles they create to fulfill them. 

In recent years, we’ve seen myriad new titles created to reflect the importance of customer experience, machine learning, and digital transformation. At Citizens Financial Group, which is among the top 25 largest banks in the United States, this is evidenced in a role created two years ago: Chief Experience Officer. It’s a customer-focused role designed to ensure Citizens Bank builds capabilities that will continuously allow it to serve customers better while leveraging data to differentiate itself from competitors. 

Beth Johnson took on this role in January 2022 and has since been dedicated to improving customer experience while building a data-centric culture that embraces digital transformation. In this episode of the Data Economy Podcast, Johnson discusses the importance of using data strategically to improve the customer experience and the roles talent and culture play.

Common mistakes when working with customers and data

In describing her role, Johnson discusses the importance of understanding customers – who they are, what they care about, and what’s important to them. She explains that you can’t always glean those answers through conversations and surveys. 

“I think the mistake people make is sometimes we think customers know what they care about and what’s important to them,” Johnson says. “But you can’t just ask them. You have to observe the behavior of our customers and how we interact to make sure we understand those needs that we each feel – and I use the word ‘feel’ intentionally – as well as rationally think about it so that Citizens can support them in their lives, and in the banking partnerships that they have.” 

She hits on an important point that I believe can be easy for many data leaders to lose sight of when they’re in the weeds working with data: The need to understand the emotional side of what they’re working on and not just the technical side.

“I think the biggest mistake data and analytics organizations make is making it all about the data, or all about the math, or all about the technical components, versus tapping into those emotional components,” Johnson says, later adding: “It’s really that emotional end state for the customer that matters if we’re going to grow our business and continue to be relevant to our clients.”

In the podcast, Johnson cites an example related to customers seeking home equity loans for a kitchen renovation. From an emotional perspective, customers will be happier if they can get their loans approved faster and start their renovations sooner. From a technical perspective, that means using data and analytics to streamline the process for generating a home equity loan with Citizens. 

“It’s that emotional end state for the customer that matters if we’re going to grow our business and continue to be relevant to our clients,” Johnson said. 

For technologists and data scientists, the lesson here is to learn the customer outcomes and pain points by partnering with business leaders. Then, work backward on what’s optimal, from data structures to cloud infrastructure, that meet short and longer-term objectives. 

How to think about the power of real-time data

As the Chief Experience Officer, Johnson has a laser focus on improving the customer experience, and one key way to do that is to use real-time data. Data is critical in financial services, from fraud protection to using data-driven insights to personalize experiences for customers. And the ability to tap real-time data to deliver instant experiences can be another way banks differentiate themselves. 

In the interview, Johnson discusses a couple of areas where real-time data provides improved services to customers in the form of overdraft protection and real-time fraud prevention. She suggests leaders ask themselves these questions when thinking about the power of real-time data and its role in building new products and services. 

“Does the availability of this real-time data change the way that you think about interacting with the customer and the design of your products and services? How does that ripple through your thought process?” Johnson asks. 

Building a data-centric culture at a 194-year-old company

As customer experience and data becomes more inextricably linked, Johnson says Citizens is being very deliberate about solidifying the connection between the two. The 194-year-old banking institution recently created a new Chief Data and Analytics Officer role that will report to Johnson. 

“We’re being very intentional about combining the data role with the analytics role and the insights roles so that we can make sure we’re focused not only on the technology and the scaling but also being very use case and customer-driven,” Johnson said. 

For those of you who like hearing how other organizations are structuring and using their data, you won’t want to miss the discussion Johnson and Krigsman have on Citizens’ setup. They touch on the role of the cloud, data marts, and Citizens’ data intelligence platform and how Johnson sees the difference (or lack thereof) of data for operations versus innovation. 

Having a data-driven company-wide culture is key when it comes to making the most of data for customer experience and beyond. That can be especially difficult for long-standing companies and requires commitment and consistency. In the interview, Johnson discusses the steps she has personally taken to imbue a data and digital-centric culture at Citizens, including her partnership with human resources and the organization’s head of learning and development. And she shares a welcomed reminder that you can’t expect change to happen quickly. 

“You’ve got to stay at it,” she says. “It’s a constant drumbeat, and it’s one we’re going to continue to make progress on over the years.”

Indeed, the race is on for organizations of all sizes to transform how they provide valuable services and personalized experiences. I believe that those companies that take steps like Citizens, focus on customer experience, and develop differentiating capabilities with real-time data will outpace their competitors.